What Makes Barbara Run

Would-be-mayor Barbara Carlson means to make Minneapolis everything she has always imagined it to be.

"Give me the middle class," Carlson says. "Give me someone with strong family values who's pro-dogs and cats, pro-church, pro-religion. Give me someone who will work hard and not expect to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Give me someone who wants their tombstone to read, 'She was a wonderful mother and a wonderful friend.' That's what this city used to be about. That's what I want it to become again."

In 1964, electoral politics became an inextricable part of Barbara Duffy's romance with Minneapolis. That was the year she met Arne Carlson, a sober, clean-cut candidate for Minneapolis City Council--a man who, she now believes, married her largely as a matter of political convenience in 1965. Barbara excelled at playing the role of a future first lady. She spoke at rallies, pamphleted neighborhoods, hosted dinner parties. "I was so attracted to what Arne was doing," Carlson says. "I mean, here I am 26 years old, calling my mother telling her that I was at a cocktail party for the governor. That's heady stuff."

It didn't take long for her to fall in love with the proximity to power. Her marriage, meanwhile, was turning into a nightmare. In her book Barbara accuses Arne of being a cold, detached husband. She admits that she was a crazed alcoholic with a penchant for binge eating. After losing their first-born to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Barbara plummeted into depression. Arne became more distant. Finally, 13 years and several houses later, they got a divorce. Arne eventually got primary custody of their children, Tucker and Anne.

The tabloid-ready details of these defining years, documented in her sporadically scandalous 1996 autobiography, This Broad's Life, contradict Carlson's idyllic recollections of middle-class Minneapolitans tripping on the American Dream. Her own life was a faithless mix of erratic public presence and private, Valium-addled misery. "Family values" were not a long suit in the Carlson home; neither was thrift or modesty or church on Sunday. So where exactly does Barbara Carlson find the authority to talk about the virtues of the good old days? "I come from a strong family," she says. "We take care of our own. That's been indelibly imprinted on my life. Though we were dysfunctional and alcoholic, we had tremendous respect for one another."

There is something touching about her devotion to her own weird family milieus, both in the Duffy and the Carlson households, but it feeds her myopia as well. As far as Barbara Carlson's concerned, she was down-and-out once, so she knows what it takes to crawl back out. And it doesn't take public assistance. To this day, she regards publicly funded social programs with a casual contempt and is suspicious of anyone who claims to have nowhere to turn. The fact that she herself has led quite a privileged life--well-to-do family, well-connected friends--has no bearing on her analysis of what ails the poor. "Don't tell me the lower class doesn't have access to support systems. There are churches, synagogues, fraternal organizations, and loving relationships between human beings," she says, cocking a loaded eyebrow. End of discussion.

"She didn't really understand or have much empathy for the less advantaged citizens and constituents in the city," says Joan Niemiec, who worked with Carlson on the Minneapolis City Council. "Just like she didn't treat her office with dignity, she did not treat others with dignity."

Carlson and Niemiec first butted heads in 1984, two years after Carlson was elected to the Minneapolis City Council as an Independent Republican. Like most of Carlson's Council colleagues, Niemiec viewed her as a rabble-rouser who hated the practical minutiae of governance. Carlson smiles at Niemiec's criticisms. Says she wouldn't have had it any other way. She prides herself on having played the heckler--the oddball voice of conscience, part Greek chorus and part bleacher bum, cheerfully unconcerned with the details but always ready with a quotable opinion.

When then-Mayor Don Fraser delivered his budgets, Carlson annually wrote letters of objection to the Star Tribune. When the Council offered up to $3 million for a proposed state arts high school, the pet project of Gov. Rudy Perpich's wife, Lola, Carlson showed her scorn by playing a recording of the song "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" at a public meeting. She tirelessly worked to cut the city's property taxes and constantly urged her colleagues to do more for upper-income citizens, a position that pleased the bulk of her Kenwood constituents. "It's very, very easy to get involved in the immediate needs of the poor and the North Side and development out in the wards without looking at how many people are going to the suburbs," Carlson told a Strib reporter in 1987.

"She had some basic premises--fiscal responsibility, pro-neighborhood--that I appreciated," says Pat Fleetham, a 7th Ward business owner during Carlson's Council tenure. "She had the ability to cut to the heart of an issue and deal with it in a direct fashion. Back then, property taxes were a hot-button issue for the people who put her in office. So that's what she worked on."

Beneath her dogged attention to the city's pocketbook, however, Carlson was anything but an ideologue. Her second husband, Pete Anderson, whom she married in 1983, is an old-fashioned New Deal Democrat. During her Council tenure she was, as she now remains, adamantly pro-choice. On the Council she also opposed a controversial anti-pornography ordinance that received national attention. She routinely leaked confidential memoranda to the press and consistently razzed the private sector to do more for the poor. In 1984, she made headlines when she leveled a blast at the "single-issue fundamentalists" and born-again Christians she believed were taking over the Republican party. In that year's election she ran successfully as an Independent.

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